The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

TitleThe Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Universe
Author: Brian Greene
Genre: non-fiction (science, physics)
ISBN: 9780393046885
387 pages
: 1999
Source: public library
Rating: 3.5/5
Challenges/ResolutionsNon-Fiction Resolution

Reason for Reading: About five years ago I was a senior in high school and I took physics. (I’m not really sure, in retrospect, why I took physics–it’s possible I took it just to go to an amusement park for a field trip haha) Towards the end of the year, my teacher showed us a PBS documentary about String Theory, something I’d never heard about before, as I don’t venture into the field of physics when I don’t have to. But it sounded really interesting and I loved the documentary. So I’ve been meaning to read the book the documentary was based on for years. And I finally got around to it!


Summary: I think the best way to summarize this, since it’s sort of a confusing topic, is to show you. Below is a video that contains the “trailer” for the PBS documentary (it’s only about the first three minutes of the video).

The levels of magnification, according to what String Theory says: 1) macroscopic level (matter); 2) molecular level; 3) atomic level (protons, neutrons, electrons); 4) subatomic level (electron); 5) subatomic level (quarks, three make up each proton & neutron); and 6) string level

My Thoughts: Surprisingly enough, I actually did understand about half of the book–that was more than I expected. It starts off with explaining special and general relativity as per Einstein–this is the big stuff, like planets. I understood this stuff pretty well, considering. But when the book ventured into quantum mechanics (the really really tiny stuff, smaller than atoms), I got completely lost. I think this might have to do with the fact that much of the quantum mechanics contained math beyond my comprehension. I could picture the big stuff, but I couldn’t picture the small stuff. So, what I understood of the book–especially black holes and hidden dimensions–I enjoyed. But what went over my head…well, it went over my head 🙂 But I read everything because I was afraid that if I skipped a part, I would miss something that would help me understand something else later. I do give Greene credit for putting in the preface a statement that says, “You can basically skim or skip such and such a part because it’s very abstract and doesn’t have much impact on the rest.” And he forewarns again in the text when it’s coming up.

But I love the examples used in the book. Most of the time, they really helped me understand a certain point 🙂

There were a couple points in the book, especially Chapter 11, when Greene went into much detail with personal anecdotes about his own research in the field. That whole chapter focuses on Green’s own research–if it had been from another researcher, it might have warranted only a few pages. So this part was of a different writing style than the rest of the book and didn’t flow very well.

This is a Calabi-Yau manifold, a six dimensional shape and one of the fundamentals of String Theory. (Don't you think it's pretty?!))

And, in case you’re even slightly interested, this is the definition of string theory (according to Wikipedia):

String theory mainly posits that the electrons and quarks within an atom are not 0-dimensional objects, but rather 1-dimensional oscillating lines (“strings”).

I wouldn’t recommend the book to the average reader. But if you’re interested in knowing more about string theory, the PBS documentary The Elegant Universe, hosted by the author of the book, Brian Greene, is excellent. Here’s a link to the first part of a seven part collection on YouTube, which will lead you to the following parts–you should be able to watch the whole documentary this way.


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